One-Minute Book Reviews

November 15, 2009

‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ – Quotes of the Day From a 2009 Finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

“A novel … does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman, all the better.”
— Charles Darwin, as quoted in Charles and Emma

The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced Wednesday, and the finalists in the category of young people’s literature include Deborah Heiligman’s captivating Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95). This dual biography is a portrait of the loving marriage of the author of The Origin of Species and his spirited and intelligent wife, who held religious views he did not share.

This excerpt describes how Charles and Emma Darwin spent their first days in their new home in London after their wedding at a Staffordshire church on January 29, 1839:

“In their first few days together, they mostly stayed in – it was snowing. But they also did some shopping for furniture, dishes, and clothes, including a morning gown for Emma. It was ‘a sort of clarety-brown satin,’ she wrote to [her sister] Elizabeth, and she felt it was ‘very unobjectionable.’ They borrowed some novels from the library, starting a lifelong tradition of reading together – usually Emma read to Charles while he rested from his work. Charles liked novels with happy endings, and he once wrote, ‘I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me … and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.”

An earlier post on Charles and Emma has links to more information about the book.

The publisher recommends Charles and Emma for ages 13 and up — perhaps because of occasional mature content, such as the passing use of the word “erection” — but it may also appeal to younger children who are strong readers.

November 14, 2009

‘Claudette Colvin’ – Phillip Hoose’s Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Honors a Teenager Who Wouldn’t Give Up Her Bus Seat

Note: Since I posted this, a visitor has pasted into comment #1 a good short video about this book that lets you hear Claudette Colvin and see some of the excellent archival photos in the book. You can watch it without leaving this site. Jan

CLAUDETTE COLVIN: Twice Toward Justice. By Phillip Hoose. FSG/Melanie Kroupa, 133 pp., $19.95. 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Claudette Colvin brings down from the attic of American history a life that deserves a place on its front porch. The judges for the National Book Awards will announce on Wednesday whether this 2009 finalist is, in their view, the year’s best book of young people’s literature. It is certainly one of the most inspiring.

Beginning in late 1955, tens of thousands of black residents of the Alabama capital refused to ride the city’s buses after the police arrested Rosa Parks for not giving up her seat to a white passenger. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted until the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling in Browder v. Gayle that segregated buses were unconstitutional. The decision strengthened the civil-rights movement and the career of the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery who had encouraged the protesters to remain nonviolent, Martin Luther King Jr.

A plaintiff in Browder v. Gale was Claudette Colvin, an intelligent and strong-willed teenager from a family who lived in one of the poorest sections of the city. Nine months before Parks took her historic stand, Colvin was arrested and jailed after she refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a Montgomery bus. At the age of 15, Colvin had studied black history in school and idolized the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. So she did not go gently, as Parks did, when ordered her to yield her seat. As the police dragged her backwards off the bus, she screamed, “It’s my constitutional right!”

But while Parks became famous, Colvin remains little known. Phillip Hoose shows the injustice of that neglect in this fascinating story of her early years – much of it told in her words — that combines oral history and pictorial biography. Colvin’s memories of growing up in segregated Montgomery are at times almost heartbreaking in their understatement. “My mother had always said, ‘If you can even talk to a white person without lowering your eyes you’re really doing something,’” Colvin recalls. And such comments are enriched by well-chosen black-and-white archival photos, including a copy of a Jim Crow–era sign that says: “NO DOGS NEGROS [SIC] MEXICANS.”

Claudette Colvin leaves unanswered many questions about Colvin’s later life, apparently because some events were too painful for her to discuss. But anyone would prefer to have this fine story of her life than none at all.

“The wonderful thing which you have just done makes me feel like a craven coward,” a man in Sacramento wrote to Colvin after hearing that police had arrested for her staying in a bus seat she had paid for. “How encouraging it would be more adults had your courage, self respect and integrity.” Indeed, it would.

Best line: One of many memorable details of life under Jim Crow laws, in Colvin’s words: “We could shop in white stores – they’d take our money all right – but they wouldn’t let us try anything on … When [my sister] and I needed shoes, my mom would trace the shape of our feet on a brown paper bag and we’d carry the outline to the store because we weren’t allowed to try the shoes on.”

Worst line: None.

Read an excerpt from Claudette Colvin.

Furthermore: Claudette Colvin is a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature. the winner will be announced on Nov. 18, and the prize sponsor has posted more on the book on its Web site.

About the author: Hoose‘s other books include Perfect, Once Removed, a memoir of the summer when his cousin Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series.

You can also follow janiceharayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, which may have other comments on the National Book Award finalists.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 25, 2009

Rich Wallace’s Tale of Young Chess Players, ‘Perpetual Check’

Teenage brothers face off in a novel about a chess tournament

Perpetual Check. By Rich Wallace. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 128 pp., $15.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Perpetual Check has a warning for parents who overpraise their children’s modest talents, hoping to enhance self-esteem. The caution comes from Zeke Mansfield, a high school senior who is a good athlete but less than the star his father imagines. Zeke realizes at a chess tournament:

“Having his father telling him what a star he is for all those years hasn’t been a plus after all. Somehow it made him decide that an extra hour of working on his ball control was plenty, no need to make it two; that 50 sit-ups after practice were just as good as a hundred; that sometimes it wasn’t worth running hills in the pouring rain. He was great; he was unbelievable. His natural talent would carry him as far as he wanted to go. It was heady stuff at 12 or 13 or 15.”

That “heady stuff” gets tested at the Northeast Regional of the Pennsylvania High School Chess Championship, held during a snow-encrusted weekend at a hotel in Scranton. Zeke and his pudgy younger brother, Randy, a freshman, have both qualified for the event. Randy can beat his brother nine times out of ten and outranks him in other ways: He’s better student, has a girlfriend, and can guess the colors of M&Ms in his mouth with his eyes closed.

So when the two brothers meet in the semifinals, there’s a showdown, complicated by the presence of their father. Mr. Mansfield is a hypocritical, overcontrolling, sexist who tries live out his failed dreams through Zeke. His boorishness has fueled the natural rivalry between his sons, a reality that emerges in chapters told from the brothers’ alternating points of view.

Will one son outperform the other in the tournament? Or might both embarrass their father by losing to – oh, the horror! – a girl? Wallace controls the suspense well in a lightweight, fast-paced book that portrays Zeke and Randy with more subtlety than their father, who is a caricature. By the time the tournament ends, the brothers have had insights into more than chess strategy: They understand better the role their father has played in their relationship and in their parents’ shaky marriage. Zeke reflects early in Perpetual Check that “he never had a chance to be the big brother in the equation” with his sibling, because Randy had so many strengths. The equation may not be solved by the last page, but the boys have the formula.

Best line: “Randy knows that Zeke will often make a seemingly careless move early in the game. The strategy is to leave the opponent with ‘He must know something I don’t’ bewilderment.”

Worst line: “Dina giggles again.” Wallace casts Mr. Mansfield as a sexist, without using the word, but isn’t it sexist to have only female characters giggling, as in this book? Perpetual Check also has many lines such as, “He’s a dick,” “This guy I’m playing against is a prick,” and “No way you’re sitting on your fat ass for another summer.”

Published: February 2009

Ages: The publisher recommends this book for ages 12 and up, a label that appears based largely on its use of words such as “dick” and “ass.” This seems prudish and misguided given that many children start hearing these words in preschool.  Apart from the “bad words,” this short novel — a novella, really — would better suit ages 9-12 and strong readers as young as 8.

Read an excerpt form Perpetual Check.

About the author: Rich Wallace also wrote Wrestling Sturbridge and Playing Without the Ball.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 24, 2009

A Review of ‘Perpetual Check’ — Coming Tomorrow

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:23 pm
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Reviews of books for children appear on Saturdays on this site. Tomorrow: Rich Wallace’s new Pepetual Check (Knopf, 128 pp., $15.99), a short novel about two teenage brothers who compete in a Pennsylvania regional chess championship. Perpetual Check seems to have earned its “ages 12 and up” tag mainly for language like “your fat ass” and “He’s a dick.” Otherwise it’s for strong readers ages 8 and up.

January 9, 2009

Adultery for Third-Graders — A Review of ‘What I Saw and How I Lied,’ Winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

A tale of theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder, written at an 8-year-old reading level

What I Saw and How I Lied. By Judy Blundell. Scholastic, 284 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

What would you do if you were a publisher who knew that reading test scores were declining as children were seeing more sex and violent crimes in the media? Maybe play both sides against the middle as Scholastic has done with What I Saw and How I Lied, the winner of the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

This stylish literary thriller deals with subjects appropriate for the 13-to-18-year-old age range that the publisher recommends on its site — theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder. But Judy Blundell writes at a third-grade reading level in the novel, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

So who, exactly, is this book for? Much of the content is too mature for 8-year-olds. But the reading level is too low for the sophisticated adolescent and teenage girls likely gravitate to its glamorous, noir-ish cover, which shows a thin, beautiful model applying red lipstick. Blundell is condescending to them even if they enjoy its page-turner of a plot: Anyone who is ready for the subjects covered in this novel is also ready for a higher reading level.

Evie Spooner is 15 years old when her stepfather, Joe, returns from Austria in 1947, having overstayed the end of the war for murky reasons. Evie’s seductive mother has quit her job at Lord & Taylor – “Either that or get fired”— because veterans needed jobs. And she’s surprised her husband by learning to make Sunday suppers and perform other domestic tasks. “Son of a bitch,” Joe says of the change.

But the glow of the family reunion fades after Joe packs up the three of them for what he casts as an overdue Florida vacation. They settle into a Palm Beach hotel (aptly named Le Mirage), nearly deserted in the off-season. And Evie becomes swept up in a riptide of events that involves looted gold, a hurricane, an inquest into a possible homicide and her crush on a seductive 23-year-old who says he served with Joe overseas.

The plotting is tight and ingenious until an improbable last scene, and well-supported by details that evoke the era (including the chocolate cigarettes that Evie buys to “practice smoking”). And the book deals with larger issues than whether a murder occurred: What is loyalty? What do we owe the dead? Do truth and justice differ and, if so, how?

Questions like these appeal strongly to adolescents and teenagers, and this book could provide a framework for exploring them. As for their reading test scores: They’re not likely to improve if more publishers — encouraged by the National Book Award for this novel — put a senior prom dress on a third-grader’s soccer shorts.

Best line: A warning heard on the radio as a hurricane approaches Palm Beach: “Watch out for flying coconuts.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Our pipsqueak attorney had turned into a pretty decent linebacker.” It’s a stretch that a 15-year-old girl living in 1947 would know enough about linebackers to use the word in this way. No. 2: “Lana Turner was every man’s dream, sultry and blond. It was Lana filling out a sweater at a drugstore that got her a Hollywood contract.” That Turner was discovered at a drugstore is a myth. Even if the teenagers of 1947 believed the myth, the book is perpetuating this legend for a new generation of readers.

About the reading level: The reading level comes from the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on any recent version of Microsoft Word. To find it, I entered a minimum of 300 words from each of the following two-page sections of What I Saw and How I Lied: pages 36-37 (Grade 4.2), pages 136-137 (Grade 2.6) and pages 236-237 (3.7). I also entered all of last two pages (Grade 3.0). The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of authors and tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Furthermore: What I Saw and How I Lied
won a 2008 National Book Award. The National Book Foundation.
has posted an excerpt from and the citation for the novel on its site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 5, 2009

Stephenie Meyer’s ‘The Host’ Has a Fourth-Grade Reading Level, Microsoft Word Statistics Show — For One More Day With Aliens

Filed under: Fantasy,Science Fiction,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:17 am
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The dust jacket says The Host is the “first novel for adults” by the author of the Twilight” series of vampire-romances for adolescents, but the readability statistics on Microsoft Word show that Stephenie Meyer is still writing at a fourth-grade level

The Host: A Novel. By Stephenie Meyer. Little, Brown, 619 pp., $25.99.

By Janice Harayda

Mysterious things happen in the books of Stephenie Meyer. Take The Host, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. The dust jacket calls the book Meyer’s “first novel for adults.” But right away you wonder: How can this be when the novel has a fourth-grade reading level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word?

Not that you’d want your 9-year-old to have much to do with this creepily Freudian tale of a woman who is captured by aliens and wages a host-verses-graft struggle with the new “soul” the extraterrestrials have inserted into the base of her skull. The sexual undertones of the story need little elaboration. (“Would it hurt, having something put in your head?” a character wonders. Kids, ask your mothers!) Let’s just say that the book has more than one “insertion” involving a soul that looked like “a silver ribbon” or “slid smoothly into the offered space.”

For all their repressed sexuality, the characters in The Host never seem to get beyond kissing. This is fortunate given that when lips do meet, Meyer describes it this way:

“He nuzzled his face against mine until he found my lips, then he kissed me, slow and gentle, the flow of molten rock swelling languidly in the dark at the center of the earth, until my shaking slowed.”

You can understand why the captured woman, Melanie Stryder, wouldn’t be in the mood for sex, although the Stockholm Syndrome strikes early in the novel. The aliens have conquered most of the earth and threaten to kill Melanie when she won’t obey Wanderer, the “soul” who inhabits her body. So she and Wanderer hide out in caves with a band of rogue humans who are resisting the takeover of the planet.

Tensions flare as the aliens search for the fugitives. These strains may explain why we often read that characters “barked,” “roared,” “groaned,” “howled,” “muttered,” “growled,” or “bellowed.” Aliens do their share of this. (“I groaned internally,” a “soul” says.) But no one can accuse the novel of portraying extraterrestrials unsympathetically. Meyer spares no effort to show how her aliens are different from – and, in many ways, better than — humans, one of which is that they can decide when to die. “It’s a choice,” an alien says. “A voluntary choice.” Just like, presumably, the “voluntary choice” Meyer made to pad this book with many redundancies.

For all of the overexplaining, some things remain unclear. If this is a novel “for adults,” why does the story reassure you that despite the alien takeover, the planet still has soccer games, Snickers and Pop-Tarts? (Why not golf, Chardonnay and goat cheese?) Why do most of the references to sex read like parodies? (One romantic scene – which could be describing a kiss or more – makes lovers sound like candidates a burn unit: “Gasoline and an open flame – we exploded again.”) And why is the book written at a fourth-grade reading level when Meyer was apparently hoping to attract more fans than the teenagers who read her popular “Twilight” vampire series?

The trouble with all of this isn’t that Meyer is a writer of books for adolescents who has tried to move into the mainstream. Many writers – E. B. White, C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle among them – have written beautifully for both groups. Nor is the problem that grown-ups can’t enjoy novels written for younger people. Laurie Halse’s Anderson’s Chains, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, draws on such extensive research into the Revolutionary War that many adults might learn as much from it as children would.

The Host offers further evidence of the Mitch Albom-ization of America — the glut of dumbed-down books masquerading as profound or at least intelligent. On the evidence of this novel, Meyer lacks either the ability or the inclination to adapt her writing for adults. The flap copy says that The Host is about “the very essence” – not the essence but the “very” essence – “of what it means to be human.” Midway through the book, you find a more revealing line, one that shows Meyer’s love of short sentences consisting of words of one- and two-syllables. Pursued by an angry human, Melanie’s resident soul says: “Maybe I should have run the other way.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Best line: “Maybe I should have run the other way.” If taken as advice.

Worst line: Lots of competition here. No. 1: “It’s a voluntary choice.” No. 2: “When we thought of the new planet – Earth, so dry, so varied, and filled with such violent, destructive denizens we could barely imagine them — our horror was overshadowed by our excitement. Stories spun themselves quickly around the thrilling new subject. The wars – our kind! having to fight! – were first reported accurately and then embellished and fictionalized.” No. 3: And here’s how a “denizen” named Uncle Jeb speaks: “ ‘Well, for Pete’s sake!’ Jeb exclaimed. ‘Can’t nobody keep a secret around this place for more’n 24 hours? Gol’ durn, this burns me up!’” No. 4: The line quoted in the review, beginning, “He nuzzled.”

About the reading level: The reading level for The Host comes from the Flesch-Kindcaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. To find it, I used passages of at least 300 words each on pages 31–32 (Grade 4.1), 131–132 (Grade 4.6) and 431-432 (Grade 3.3). The reading levels for the three sections averaged Grade 4.0. American children typically begin the fourth grade at the age of nine. The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of other bestselling or classic novels and tells how to use Word. It tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Published: May 2008

About the author: Stephenie Meyer also wrote Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse for young adults.

Answer to Friday’s quiz, “Do You Have What It Takes to Write a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller?”: All of the lines on Friday’s quiz appear in The Host.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 5, 2008

A 13-Year-Old Slave Seeks Her Freedom in 1776 in Laurie Halse Anderson’s ‘Chains,’ a National Book Award Finalist (Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery Awards, #3)

A black teenager in New York City hopes to win her freedom by exposing a plot to kill George Washington

Chains (Seeds of America Series). By Laurie Halse Anderson, 316 pp., $16.99. Ages 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

On the eve of the American Revolution, thousands of slaves lived in New York City. In Chains Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of a fictional 13-year-old owned by a cruel Loyalist couple with a regal townhouse on Wall Street in 1776.

Isabel Finch learns of a plot to kill George Washington as she serves wine and cheese on a silver platter to the Locktons’ Tory friends, and she later sneaks away to warn Continental Army soldiers of the danger to their commander. She hopes her spying will persuade the Patriots to free her and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, also owned by the Locktons. The soldiers have more urgent concerns after the British invade New York, and without reliable allies on either side, Isabel forms a dangerous plan to win her freedom on her own.

This well-written and beautifully designed young adult novel brims with interesting period details that serve a worthy theme: What is freedom? Why did white colonists, as they fought for independence, tolerate the enslavement of blacks?

Chains also has action so fast-paced — and at times over-the-top — that it borders on soap opera. Isabel joins the Locktons after her former owner breaks a promise to free her and her sister. She is beaten, thrown into a dungeon, hauled before a judge, put in stocks, and branded on the face with an I (for “Insolence”) after she tries to flee. She sees a hanging, the great fire of 1776, and dead bodies stacked at a prison that houses her friend Curzon, a former slave. She hears of a throat-slashing, a bayonet execution, and other atrocities.

Laurie Halse Anderson recounts all of this with an evenness of tone that robs her tale of some of its impact. Telling her story in her own voice, Isabel speaks matter-of-factly, whether she is describing her owners’ evil deeds or a rare joy such as the news that Curzon has survived a battle. Each new trauma gets the same emotional weight, a trait that places the book closer to high-quality genre fiction or a good newspaper story of long-ago events than to art. Chains describes Dickensian horrors without the Dickensian pathos. You follow Isabel’s story raptly, but you don’t feel nearly as much for her as you should.

Best line: Among the many good period details: “Madam opened an envelope and shock out two gray strips of mouse fur, each cut into an arch. Leaning toward the mirror, she glued the mouse fur onto her own eyebrows, making them bushy and think as fashion required.”

Worst line: “My bones were hollow sticks; my brainpan empty.” “My bones were hollow and my brainpan empty.” This repetition of a nearly identical line on back-to-back pages suggests a either a cutting-and-pasting oversight or that Halse Anderson couldn’t decide where to put or how to punctuate the line.

Newbery/Caldecott assessment: It will be interesting to see what the Newbery judges do with this one. Chains was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html. So it should get serious attention from the Newbery judges. But it has so much violence that, although none of it is inappropriate in context, you wonder if the judges might consider it instead for the Michael Printz Award, given to a book for older readers.

Published: October 2008. Chains is the first book in a series about Isabel that will continue with Forge.

If you like historical novels about independent girls, you might also like: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/. Schlitz won the 2008 Newbery Medal for her book of monologues and dialogues Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village. A review of and reading group guide to the book appeared separate in separate posts on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 26,2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/26/.

For more on the Revolutionary War era: Jean Fritz has written an excellent series of illustrated books about the American Revolution for 9-to-12-year-olds that includes Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George (Putnam,1996) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1997). Books by Fritz www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/jeanfritz.html are available in many libraries and in stock at online bookstores and many others.

Furthermore: Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and other books www.writerlady.com. She lives in Mexico, New York.

Other posts in the “Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Awards” appeared on May 10, 2008 (Pale Male) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/ and Nov. 22 (Zen Ties) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/11/22/.

Janice Harayda is a former judge for the National Book Critics Circle Awards. She has reviewed children’s books for more than a decade.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Historical Novel ‘Chains,’ a Finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
Chains (Seeds of America)
By Laurie Halse Anderson
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

On the eve of the American Revolution, thousands of slaves lived in New York City. In Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story a fictional 13-year-old girl owned by a cruel Loyalist couple with a regal townhouse on Wall Street in 1776. Young Isabel Finch learns of a plot to kill George Washington as she serves wine and cheese on a silver platter to the Locktons’ Tory friends, and she later sneaks away to warn Continental Army soldiers of the danger to their commander. She hopes her spying will persuade the Patriots to free her and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, also owned by the Locktons. The soldiers have more urgent concerns after the British invade New York, and without reliable allies on either side, Isabel forms a dangerous plan to win her freedom on her own.

Discussion Questions for Young Readers

1. Isabel and Ruth Finch are slaves. How are their lives similar to those of other slaves you’ve read about? How are they different from them?

2. Did you know that slavery existed in places like New York City before you read Chains? Did Laurie Halse Anderson convince you that some New Yorkers really did have slaves? How did she do it?

3. Isabel and Ruth are sold to a married couple after their former owner refuses to honor a promise to free them. Elihu and Anne Lockton are “Loyalists.” [Page 38] Who or what are they loyal to? Who or what is Isabel loyal to? What role do clashing or divided loyalties play in the novel?

4. After moving in with the Locktons, Isabel tries to run away. A judge orders that she be branded with the letter I for Insolence. [Page 145] Branding is both physically and emotionally painful. Why might slaves like Isabel have felt humiliated by it?

5. Elihu Lockton hits his wife, Anne, during an argument. [Page 108] Why do you think the author put this scene in the book?

6. Isabel answers to several names. When the Locktons buy her, she is Isabel Finch. Anne Lockton changes her name to “Sal Lockton” (and calls her “Girl”). [Page 128] Isabel’s friend Curzon calls her “Country” (and has two names of his own). Why do the different names matter? Do you think Anne Lockton just liked the sound of “Sal Lockton” better than “Isabel Finch”? If not, why might she have wanted to change the name?

7. The title of this novel refers to more than one kind of chains. What are some of different types of “chains” it involves? What does Isabel mean when she says, “I was chained between two nations”? [Page 182]

8. The mayor of New York tells Isabel’s owner: “The beast has grown too large. If it breaks free of its chains, we are all in danger. We need to cut off its head.” Who or what was the “beast”? [Page 89]

9. There’s a lot of action in this book, some of it going on in the foreground (what happens to Isabel) and some in the background (what happens in places like Trenton and Princeton). Why do you think the author told you what was taking place in, for example, Philadelphia when this book is mainly about Isabel’s life in New York?

10. Isabel notices that the Patriots are fighting for freedom, but their idea of freedom doesn’t seem to include people like her. A male slave defends the Patriots by saying: “Some Patriots own slaves, yes, but you must listen to their words: ‘all men, created equal.’ The words come first. They’ll pull the deeds and the justice behind them.” [Page 164] What did he mean?

Extras:
11. “‘Freedom and liberty’ has different meanings,” Isabel’s master, Elihu Lockton says. What are some of the different meanings it has for people in this book?

12. Chains includes colorful facts about everyday life in 1776. What are some of the most interesting?

Vital Statistics:
Chains (Seeds of America Series). By Laurie Halse Anderson, 316 pp., Simon & Schuster. $16.99. Ages 10 and up. Published: Oct. 2008
Chains was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html.

A review of Chains appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Dec. 5, 2008, in the post that directly followed this one http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/12/05/.

Laurie Halse Anderson also wrote Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and other books www.writerlady.com.

If you like historical novels about independent girls, you might also like: Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/.

For more on the Revolutionary War era: Jean Fritz has written an excellent series of illustrated books about the American Revolution for 9-to-12-year-olds that includes Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George (Putnam,1996) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1997). Books by Fritz www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/jeanfritz.html are available in many libraries and in stock at online bookstores and many others.

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to your blogroll so you won’t miss others. Reader’s guides appear on the site frequently but not on a regular schedule. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and has been approved by and appears on Open Directory lists. It is one of the top 10 book review site in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts/ Literature” blogs: www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Review of Laurie Halse’s Anderson’s ‘Chains’ — Tomorrow

Coming tomorrow: A review of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, which involves a 13-year-old slave who lives in New York during the Revolutionary War and devises a dangerous plan to escape from her cruel Loyalist owners. The review is the latest in the “Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery Medals” series on this site, which looks at possible candidates for the American Library Association prizes to be handed out on Jan. 26.

November 8, 2008

The ‘How I Survived Middle School’ Series – Nancy Krulick’s Fiction for Preteens, ‘Can You Get an F in Lunch?’ and ‘Madame President’

The first novels in a popular series tell fourth-graders how to apply eye shadow and cope with “hot” boys

Can You Get an F in Lunch? (How I Survived Middle School Series). By Nancy Krulik. Scholastic, 112 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages: See discussion below.

Madame President (How I Survived Middle School Series). By Nancy Krulik. Scholastic, 112 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

The advance reading copies of these novels included publicity material that recommended them for 8-to-12-year-olds – a surprising age range for books that offer a full page of makeup tips and a quiz called “What Kind of Girl Are You?” that begins, “There’s a new boy in school and you think he’s really hot …”

Did Scholastic think that third-graders needed to read about how to put on eye shadow and cope with “hot” boys? I went to its Web site and found that that the answer was “No”: Scholastic thinks fourth-graders need to read about them. It apparently raised the lowest recommended age for the books by a year after printing the advance reading copies.

This change was hardly reassuring. Tips on makeup and boys may be fine for girls at the upper end of the age range for these books, the first in a popular series. But their heroine is 11 and ½ when her story begins, and children generally prefer to read about characters who are slightly older than they are. So most readers of these early books are apt to be 10 or younger. What will a 9-year-old fourth grader find it in them? Tips like these from Can You Get an F in Lunch?:

“BLUE-EYED BABES: Brown and rose eye shadows were made for you. Apply the shadow from lash lines to creases in your eyelids. Then top it with some dark brown or black mascara.”

Any publisher who tried to sell 9-year-olds a nonfiction book of makeup tips might face parental anger and resistance from school libraries. But Scholastic has found a way around the problem by incorporating the advice into novels and a companion Web site that its heroine consults and young readers may also visit.

You can read this marketing ploy as either as a) a harmless sign of the times and a logical extension of girls’ interest in toys like Bratz dolls or b) another sick example of premature sexualization and a publisher’s hope that people have forgotten the horror of seeing pictures of JonBenét Ramsey in full makeup. Either way, girls are finding their way to the novels. Jenny McAfee, the main character, has a blog on the series Web site that drew more than 700 comments for one post alone. And you wish that the books repaid that interest with more literary merit.

Jenny is kind and wholesome — her worst word is “Yikes” — and tells her story through down-to-earth first-person narration. She recovers quickly from her early setbacks in middle school (in Can You Get an F in Lunch?). And she wages a clean campaign against the odds when she runs for sixth-grade class president against her nasty ex-best friend, Addie, who has dropped her for a popular clique (in Madame President). Both novels spell out their themes plainly: Difficult situations get easier, hard work pays off, and true friends like you for who you are, not for what you own.

But this is standard tween series fare, built not on character development but on a fast pace and familiar anxieties – homework, new teachers, bad cafeteria food, taunts from older students, and off-again, on-again plans for trips to the mall. The “How I Survived Middle School” novels differ from others mainly in the women’s-magazine-style tips and pop quizzes scattered throughout the books and their Web site. And the advice raises its own problems.

Some of the tips in the series might help younger middle school students. But even the best raise the question of whether girls benefit from such an early indoctrination into the idea that they need advice on beauty, popularity and similar topics from people besides their parents, teachers and others who know them.

This series makes you wonder: Is anybody giving such advice to 9-year-old boys? You might argue, correctly, that boys tend to read other kinds of books. But to the degree that that’s true, this series reinforces stereotypes of girls no matter how much interest Jenny may have in playing basketball and running for class president.

If I had a 9- or 10-year old daughter, I wouldn’t refuse to buy these books for her. But I would offer her many other things to read, too – classics, good contemporary fiction and nonfiction, and, yes, the novels her brothers like. If she wanted advice on dealing with cliques and the other topics covered in the series, I would encourage her to visit the appropriate pages (“Kids” or “Teens”) of the award-winning Web site, KidsHeath, including kidshealth.org/kid/feeling/friend/clique.html. And in gentle way, I would suggest a potential drawback to those recommended “rose eye shadows”: Instead of turning her into” blue-eyed babe,” they could make her look as though she got a chronic eyelid disease at sleepaway camp.

Best line: From Can You Get an F in Lunch?: “If Addie and Dana and the rest of their clique were supposed to be so popular, how come there were so few of them? Didn’t being ‘popular’ mean that you were liked by everyone?”

Worst line: Also from Can You Get an F in Lunch?: “Soon, Addie, Dana, and Claire were exchanging pots of eye shadow and blush with the older girls, bonding over their collections of Cover Girl, Hard Candy, and Jessica Simpson Dessert makeup.”

Caveat lector: In this series, middle school begins with the sixth grade — not with the fifth as at many schools – and Jenny McAfee is 11 ½ years old in its first book. The upper age limit for these novels would probably be 10 or 11 in places where middle school begins in fifth grade. But there’s a weird disconnect: At least in the first two books, the series doesn’t deal with topics that would naturally interest girls who are old enough to wear makeup, including menstruation and breast development. This review was based on an advance reading copy, and some material in the finished books may differ.

Read an excerpt from the series at www2.scholastic.com/browse/collateral.jsp?id=10789.

Published: June 2007 www.middleschoolsurvival.com The latest novel in the “How I Survived Middle School” series is Who’s Got Spirit?.

Better choices: A few that are available in most bookstores and libraries: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner and perhaps the year’s biggest hit among 9-year-olds; The Higher Power of Lucky, the 2007 Newbery Medal winner, which may appeal to 10-year-olds; and Russell Freedman’s fine biographies for ages 9-12 Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery and Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life.

Furthermore: Nancy Krulik has written many popular books for children and teens.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who reviews books for children or teenagers every Saturday on this site, often in more depth than publications such as School Library Journal do. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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